There’s a sign posted on my desk that lists: SIGHT, HEARING, TOUCH, SMELL and TASTE. Years ago, I typed this in Times New Roman, 36 point, bold on white paper, printed it out, and cut it to 3×5 size. It’s remained there among the letters and files, the calendars and journals, and with the many photos, cartoons and scribbled notes that adorn my work area.
When I’m editing, the sign comes forward. I place it right near the computer screen. Are the senses there in what I wrote? Do my characters – and do I – taste and touch and see so that readers will experience my story or essay as I intended? Will they feel as I want them to when they read these words of mine?
In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman writes in her introduction that “The senses don’t make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity; they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern.”
Yes, she sometimes writes like that – she’s a poet, after all — and her sentences can sometimes be challenging. But I love when Ackerman writes, in the first chapter, “The Mute Sense”: “Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel.”
Open the book to any page, to Ackerman’s take on any of the five senses; A Natural History is so rich in language that you can only read it in small bits. Feelings come alive in us, though, the kind of feelings that sir up memories: For me: Hearing: A late night train arriving at the station, two miles across an open field. I was raised in Queens, New York, one block from the train tracks, and my thoughts may go back there. Touch: Any of the soft scarves I wear around my neck in fall and winter, part of my seasonal wardrobe since early adulthood. Sight: The continuous stream of autumn leaves falling outside, just like they have the last thirty-plus years, here in the northwest woods of East Hampton. I keep Ackerman’s book nearby for short excursions into her poetic view of all the senses.
This, from Anatole Broyard’s review in The New York Times of A Natural History of the Senses in July 1990:
“To think our way back into feeling: this is Ms. Ackerman’s mission, and she’s very persuasive. On every other page, there’s a nice apercu: breath is ‘cooked air’; perfume is ‘liquid memory’; when astronauts are weightless in their spaceship, they lose their sense of smell; the sweat of schizophrenics smells different from ours; a kiss is like singing into someone’s mouth; in a Stradivarius violin, the wood ‘remembers’ its past performances.”
Seeing and reading this review brings me right back to 1969, when I took one of my first writing workshop classes at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. Broyard, writer, literary critic and editor for The New York Times, was my teacher, and I can hear his voice, full of advice and attitude, as if it was last week instead of decades ago.
And I hear the voices of other teachers and colleagues when my mind drifts back to those early years of producing my first short stories, plays and essays. My first novel. What I don’t hear, I can feel when I touch the papers I wrote then, still in my file drawers, smelling musty now from age, but reassuring me that I made wise choices: to pursue writing, and eventually the teaching of writing. Looking in, anyone can see that I am blessed: these two occupations have given me a rich, full life.
Please visit my website: www.eileenobser.com and see my Book page, which gives information about Only You, my memoir, to be published in January by Oak Tree Press.